Recently when I saw Richard Slotkin’s new “No Quarter: The Battle of the Crater, 1864” on the shelf of the local Borders bookstore, I admit that I put it back with little hesitation. After all, what could I expect from a Professor of American Studies at Wesleyan University known principally for his studies of violence on the Western frontier? Certainly, not an incisive, hard-core military study. But a couple days later, I changed my mind. After all, the book is about an episode in the Petersburg Siege, a campaign which has in the last few years become a focus for my interests. And upon reading "No Quarter", I found the book to be a fine addition to the mountain of American Civil War literature. The viciousness of the fighting was intensified by the participation of a Union division of “colored” troops, something certain to raise the ire of Confederate defenders. As might be expected, this racial aspect of the affair is given considerable attention by Slotkin, but what might not be anticipated is his highly detailed tactical analysis of the action, with brigade and regimental movements carefully described to develop a full picture of a complex combat action. Too often, the Battle of the Crater has been presented as basically a horrendous, confused melee, without form or reason; Slotkin makes it clear that while there certainly was confusion and chaos and incompetence, at the same time there were activities displaying clear tactical thinking and skill. And the author delves deeply into primary accounts to present a vivid picture of what went on. Slotkin makes no apologies for Confederates (and at least a few Union soldiers) who murdered, in cold blood or hot, many of the black troops, but he does present the atrocities in a broader context, noting that when the black units advanced into battle, they were exhorted to “remember Fort Pillow” and to expect and to give no quarter themselves. And many of the counterattacking Confederate infantry received orders to give no quarter, without any indication that they were facing black troops; by 1864, the Civil War had reached a depth of violence divorced from mere skin color.
I can think of few other Civil War military histories that do a comparable job of presenting such a comprehensive tactical portrait of a battle. Beyond question, “No Quarter” is the definitive account of the Crater, and it should be appreciated by anyone with a strong interest in battlefield tactics of the era.
Bruce Trinque, Amston, CT
Text Source: firstname.lastname@example.org July 27, 2009